Reginald Hart had been in business at 14th and Irving street NW for three years, running a shoe store that drew customers from all over the city. Then came the rioting along 14th Street after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King on Thursday night, April 4, 1968.
When Hart returned to his shop Friday morning, his display windows were broken, many of his shoes and purses were gone, and much of his store had been burned. He and neighboring 14th Street merchants set out to "clean up the mess." But by noon Friday the looting and burning had begun again. It did not end until most of the 14th Street shopping strip had been consumed.
"The looting hurt me tremendously," Hart recalls. "I was a black merchant, and I was trying to do something black people could be proud of. But it was torn down, burned."
Hart reopened his tore a block south on 14th Street the following August. He also expanded to two other stores. But customers from outside the riot corridor stopping shopping there, and even Hart's loyal customers stopped coming. His 14th Street store "went sour," he recounts, and its losses forced him to go out of business.
Now, says Hart, who became a Prudential insurance agent, he would "never, never, never again" go back into business. "I've been away from it long enough to have doen a very good job of forgetting about it. I gave away 15 years of my life."
This is the story of what has become of 14th Street where the 1968 riots began and did the most damage . Before the riots, it had been black Washington's "downtown" shopping district. More than 250 variety stores, jewelry shops, boutiques, movie theaters, bars, carry-outs, newstands and auto dealers had lined the busy thoroughfare from Florida Avenue north to Newton Street. On Easter Sunday, 14th and U was the place to parade spring finery. At night, 14ths Street between Columbia Road and Irving Street was one of the busiest blocks in town.
Now, 10 years after the riots, much of 14th street is still a disaster area. The liquor stores and record shops and beauty parlors that made it back into business are surrounded by still vacant, barred storefronts and littered, empty lots. Red paint graffiti covers the side of empty buildings with gaping broken windows. Next to one vacant lot lies an urban renewal sign splotched with dirt.
At night now, junkies wait for the "Candyman" at 14th and T. Old men engulfed in too-big coats and dirty mufflers warm their hands in the late night chill over a street fire of trash and sticks.
But now, too, the first flowers of revitalization are budding. A Riggs Bank, Safeway and Woolworth's solidly anchor the corridor at Park Road. More than 200 apartment units have been rehabilitated in two buildings at 14th and Fairmont streets. Columbia Hieghts Village, a new subsidized apartment project for low and moderate income families has risen around 14th and Harvard Streets (and 8,000 families have applied for its 406 apartments). The Upper Cardozo Neighborhood Health Center is open at 14th and Irving streets. C&P Telephone co. ha sput a new telephone service center on 14th Street, and Mickey Mouse telephones smile through the windows at passerby.
Residents and officials agree that these improvements are encouring, but they are only a small belated beginning of the rebuilding that was planned for 14th Street. The corridor, says George E. Storey, 47, a Food and Drug Administration chemist and community activist, is still "a horror story."
"I see it (14th Street) every day. I can't deny the reality of it," Storey said. "And waiting on the government to do something about it is like waiting on the day when you take your last breath."
Up and down 14th Street, residents, merchants and community workers spoke of their frustration with the city government's slowness in helping to rebuild.
The Rev. David Eaton, minister of the All Souls Unitarian Church, remembered that a rebuilding project his church is helping to sponsor was first proposed in 1971. "It could easily have been completed in two years," Eaton said. "I certainly didn't see any grea assistance from the District government during the initial stages.Most of the positive change on 14th Street has been due to community groups and the church. We had to push the government, and only in recent months have they shown any enthusiasm. It should have occured a long time ago."
Cornell Brace, owner of the Tivoli Beauty Supply and beauty salon at 3310 14th St., recalls that at least six barbershops and beauty salons went out of business after the riots. Brace has owned his shop since 1972. Before that, he had worked at a barbershop across the street for 10 years.
Brace said there were no vacant stores along 14th Street between his old shop and F Street before the riots. "It used to be very, very nice," Brace, 38, said. "You could shop on 14th Street and get anything you wanted."
When he first opened his new shop in 1972, Brace said, "they were talking about rebuilding 14th Street. They haven't done anything yet but a few apartments."
William Ellis, executive director of the 14th Street Project Area Committee (PAC), a government-funded community organization that monitors development in the area, recalled that when 14th Street's first community "Togetherness Day" was held in the summer of 1975, "it was more of a lack of achievement celebration." Since then, he said, some projects "that were caught in the bureaucratic maze have been shaken out of the pipeline."
Ellis and others said that now that construction and rehabilitation have begun, they want to make certain the 14th Street corridor regains its economic stability.Construction jobs should go to some of the neighborhood's unemployed, they said, and new housing should benefit the lower income black residents already living in the area. Community organizers are encouraging residents to try to buy homes they rent or hold on to those they own.
On the southern fringe of the 14th Street riot corridor, young upper-income families, many of them white, are buying renovated town houses in a restoration movement that is spreading east from neighborhoods such as Adams-Morgan. This trend has had little effect on 14th Street itself, however.
From his office in a huge brick building that used to be the Hines Funeral Home on the corner of 14th and Harvard Street, Reginald Green talked about the city and 14th Street. Green currently holds the unwieldy title of acting assistant to the area chief for the wards one and four office of the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development.
"I understand why there is pessimism," Green said. "Those of us who are honest in this department and sensitive to this issue will admit that. It has taken longer than we anticipated. But in recent months, we've seen some signs of change."
Green cited many reasons for delays in getting construction and rehabilitation started. The process for reviewing proposed development is lengthy and has heldp up projects, Green said. There also was a moratorium on subsidized housing construction during the Nixon administration he noted.
People who were familiar with the old urban renewal and model cities programs of the late 1960s and early 1970s had to be made familiar with the new community development program of the mid-1970s, with its new rules and regulations and flexibility, Green explained. There alse was bickering among community groups in the early 1970s over who should develop renewal plans and control the money.
"There's just not enough money to do the kinds of things that need to be done," Green said. "There was no real eagerness on the part of private investors to invest in the city after the riots and civil disturbances. Now, we see an interest again."
Green said the also senses that 14th Street neighborhood residents, old and new, have become increasingly interested in revitalizing the area. "In spite of all the heat we get from them," he said, "I always say than God for those folk who are interested in their community. Otherwise, I don't know what would have happened here."
One 14th Street area resident, Ruth Webster, a third generation Washingtonian, said the new housing is "good for the eyes to see."
Ten years ago, when the rioting began, she had stood at her window, holding her grandson, who was just learning to talk.
"'Fire burning, grandma,', he said to me," Mrs. Webster remembered. "I thought the whole thing was going to burn down. The toy stores, the whiskey stores, all of it burned, burned, burned. I remember that Mr. Lebowitz, who owned Morton's, had just sent abroad for a beautiful chandelier for his store and he was so proud of it. I remember he cried. If you were a participant, I guess you were pleased. If you were a resident, you were horrified."
But while the rioting was "sad," destroying what she called "our F Street," she added, it also left her with a feeling of hope.
"You had to think that maybe they'll do something now, and you could join hands with the rioters. Not that it was right, but maybe it was necessary. The city, through HUD, has been extraordinarily slow. The government had to be prodded by the citizens."
The 406-unit Columbia Heights Village project located across from Reginald Green's office was sponsored by the CHANGE-ALL Souls Housing Corp., a joint venture of a community antipoverty group and a local church. The city government acquired the land for the project and provided street improvements. Most of the apartments are now occupied by tenants chosen to represent a wide socio-economic mix.
The 218-unit rehabilitated apartment buildings at 1400 and 1401 Fairmont St. NW were sponsored by the Federal City Housing Corp. and the congressionally chartered National Corporation for Housing Partnerships, with help from the city and federal governments.
The Upper Cardozo Neighborhood Health Center, located at 3020 14th St. between Irving Street and Columbia Road, which began operation in late 1975, was helped by many public and private organizations.
The District government has about $1.6 million allocated for low-interest rehibilitation loans to property owners in the 14th Street community development area, according to a draft report for neighborhood development. The city also has a building code violations were private owners refuse to make repairs.
About $1.4 million in local and federal money has been spent to improve sidewalks and streets in the 14th Street area. One small, concrete recreation area has been constructed at 14th and Irving streets. Construction of a second, at Euclid Street between University Place and 14th Street, is scheduled to begin in June.
There are also plans for more ambitious changes in the future, including a major commercial center where the old Tivoli Theater is now located at 14th and Park Road. A Metro subway station in planned for the vicinity of 14th and Irving, but its exact location and date of construction have not yet been determined. Metro has, however, begun buying up and tearing down some old buildings, including the old Republic Theater.
In addition to the 14th Street, many blocks of the 7th Street NW and H Street NE commercial strips also were destroyed during the riots 10 years ago and even less has been done to rebuild them. A draft of a new city report notes that some redevelopment is now underway in those areas. The city itself owns hundreds of housing units and commercial buildings, many of them vacant, and empty lots along all three riot corridors.
Before the riots, sales of stores on 14th Street alone were estimated at between $75 million and $100 million. The 1970 sales volume two years after the riots had burned out more than 90 businesses, was estimated at less than $4 million. And business has not gotten much better since.
"We're suffering," said Alexander Mitchell, co-owner of the Good Things store at 14th Street and Columbia Road. "We're doing without a lot of things to get our business where we want it to be."
Mitchell, 31, who is president of the 14th Street Corridor Business Association Inc., said the businessmen there complain of problems with drug addicts, shoplifters, and "people hitting the customers on the head." One of the things the association is pushing to get, he said is better police protection. "As long as these crimes are allowed to occur in our area, our area will never change."
A black record store salesman, who said his store had been robbed twice in three months, put it this way: "It seems to me like they don't want you to stay. They tear up everything. But they won't run me out."
"Fourteenth Street is not as bad a picture as is painted anymore," said Police Sgt. Ray Craft, who has been working in the District there for seven years and was part of the civil disturbance unit that policed the 14th Street corridor in 1968. "You created a monster there, a Frankenstein, but it's under control. Citizens groups have been formed there now, and people understand the function of the police a lot better."
Craft remembered that 10 years ago, there were a number of "mini-riots, with large gatherings" before the catastrophic riots after King's assassination. "We don't have that as much anymore. You don't see the kind of people inclined to mini-riots. Now you have the junkies waiting on the Candyman, and the 'Hey baby, what's happening' crowd."
Several policemen said that as more of Washington's neighborhoods near 14th Street are being revitalized, crime lessons. Charles Rinaldi, deputy chief of the 3rd Police District, said his district won an award for crime reduction at the end of 1976 and during the first three months of 1977.
A recent Friday nigh was "average" for Officer Jacob Major, he told a reporter riding with him: An early afternoon shotting. An afternoon traffic accident. A wallet snatching by some 9 and 10-year-olds.
"We always get kids who ride the bus from Northeast and Southeast Washington into Northwest to steal purses, and then they return home on thelate night buses," Major explained, shaking his head. Using a flashlight, he searched alleyways and trash bins for some sign of the kids or the wallet.
There were also a robbery at a local hotel, problems with parking tickets, a report of someone tampering with an automobile in the back of an old rundown apartment building, and a black prostitute with a white customer in the front seat of a Cadillac. "If you'd come a little quicker you'd have caught us in the act," the woman screeched out her window as Major left.
Major also said he believes the rehabilitation to some of the housing in the 14th Street area by young, affluent homebuyers has changed the pattern of crime in some neighborhoods.
"I remember when Corcoran Street used to be bad. You'd get a call and when you responded to the call someone would come to the door dripping in blood," Major said. "Now, you have middle-class people there, and you get calls about larceny and burglaries."
Major added however, that "14th Street will be 14th Street for a long time, I do believe, as long as businesses pack up at night and go back to Maryland or Virginia or Georgetown.When they leave at five, things are just starting.?